WASHINGTON, D.C.-Leonardo DiCaprio, Sharon Stone, George Lucas, Tom Hanks, Jack Black, and Samuel L. Jackson were all in the same city-and it wasn't Los Angeles. After years of threatening to move to Canada because of their frustration with American politics, stars were descending on Washington, D.C., for inauguration festivities.
Ben Affleck, Lindsay Lohan, Jamie Foxx, and Jessica Alba were guests at a party thrown by Norman Lear, 86, producer of TV shows like All in the Family and founder of the liberal think tank People for the American Way-with "American Way" often defined as religion-free. That makes his newest project, promoting a new song sporting Christian terminology and titled "Born Again American," remarkable: It's the latest exhibit of how liberals, at least since their defeat in the 2004 presidential election, have gotten religious.
"I'm a born again American, conceived in liberty," sang performers at the ball. "My Bible and the Bill of Rights / My creed's equality / I'm a born again American / My country 'tis of me." The entire catchy song, including its lines about "my country's soul on the line" and being "reordained" to a new national call, is at bornagainamerican.org.
Before the party, Lear sat in a hotel lobby with a white hat askew on his tanned bald head and explained to me the words: "I could cry every time I think those words. Sacred honor," he said, quoting the phrase from the Declaration of Independence, "you don't feel or see a lot of sacred honor in our world today. We need to be born again in those terms."
Isn't that mixing religious and political rhetoric? "We're talking about people who respect, learn, and grow from their Bible and their Bill of Rights," he said. "They're not saying, 'My Bible is the Bill of Rights.' They are sacred-secular texts. . . . All of those spiritual feelings, all of those concerns or cares, or sacred texts, belong to all of us, and are not the province of simply the religious right. We care too."
So there is a spiritual element to his message? Lear replied, "There's a deep spiritual dimension. I've come to realize . . . how healing, without a word of preachment, the idea that we are all one comes across." Lear said that people on the left like himself have always been religious, but have avoided religious conversations. He recalled a Hillary Clinton speech where she referenced God numerous times and faced stinging criticism from the press for playing to the religious right.
For being almost certainly the oldest at his bash, Lear was remarkably energetic, navigating paparazzi on the red carpet and cavorting with rock 'n' rollers Maroon 5. The partygoers were effusive about their country and Obama, with Alba saying, "It's the most amazing thing that's going to happen probably for our lifetime." The "Born Again American" singers sang, "The harvest of the spirit has begun." Lear repeated the words to himself and murmured, "Don't you love that?"
But he doesn't love the idea of undiluted Christianity. He recounted to me a letter he received the day before saying he should be born again, not as an American, but as a Christian. He scoffed: "It closed with 'the all-forgiving Jesus' was going to inflict this [eternal pain] on me. . . . Reverence for what we all relate to is what we need more of in politics and public life, and less than any individual religion's dogma."
Lear also criticizes former religious right leaders. After 9/11 Jerry Falwell criticized lesbians, gays, abortionists, and even Lear's own People for the American Way for secularizing America. "I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen,'" Falwell said-but he later apologized for his remarks. Lear remembers them: "A religious figure who can look at 9/11 and think it's the result of gays in our world-it seems lame to say it's not politically sound."
What is Lear's understanding of the differences among religions? He said, "You take a river that can run 1,500 miles, and you see the weather change along its banks. You've got different vegetation that changes with the weather, but it's all nourished by the same water. If you think of that vegetation as various religions, all nourished by the same river of reverence-the things we all relate to as gifts of God or gifts of a particular god or gifts of nature-it doesn't matter."
Lear's "Born Again American" song suggests that it doesn't matter whether the source of "spirituality" is God, gods, nature, or some other force that brings people together. That's why he says his use of "born again" is different from that of Christians: He says his use is not divisive.
The song does include divisive lyrics suggesting class struggle, contrasting workers with CEOs who "count bonuses behind the castle gates," noting that "the time has come to reaffirm that hope's not just for some," and stipulating that "the people's will must have the upper hand." One little change seems very postmodern: The song's refrain changes "my country 'tis of thee" to "my country 'tis of me.'"
Would those who follow the Bible consider Lear's religion/politics mix as controversial, maybe even divisive? He responded, "Why is drawing from our own humanity and spiritual essence of our humanity right for you and not right for any other segment of the society? We're sons and daughters of the same God [or gods, or nature, or force]. . . . How does the right get to own everything we all care about?"
At Lear's party, Sekou Andrews and Steve Connell, National Poetry Slam champions, performed. "Why in the world is it less offensive to bomb families than be gay?" they asked. "Why did you take my morality and replace it with yours, and why did I let you?. . . We have chosen to act and take America back. . . . President Barack Obama!"
The crowd went wild. Lear shares the speakers' anger about morality: "I don't think our congresspeople should be using their religious affiliation to push laws on the rest of us. But everyone has the right to their opinion and to proselytize in their way." He claimed that "Born Again American" transcends culture wars: "This is not intended as any condemnation, and I don't see a hint of it in any of the lyrics. It's far more saying, 'Hey! We're part of it too, these are all things we care about.'"